It was a dark and stormy night, but then it usually was in Seattle. Ellen Bartelle sat alone in a deserted ice cream shop. She was moodily slurping her usual double dark chocolate peanut butter malted milk shake with whipped cream, absentmindedly glancing toward the street every moment or two. She took another slurp and fought the urge to belch. She began rummaging through her fanny pack for her Tums bottle. After digging around for a while, she began the inevitable unloading of her belongings onto the table in order to locate her missing meds. She smelled the cigar smoke before she saw it. She looked up, just as she laid her hand on the bottle of antacids.
"I thought I'd find you here," the large man said, eyeing the unfortunate placement of the feminine product on the table. Her free hand shot forth like a missile, retreiving the object; they mutually denied that it happened.
"Well, you've come to the right place then," Ellen said in dark tones. She saved her dark tones voice for business, as it inspired client confidence. She continued, "I thought you said 8:00...I was just about to leave."
The fat man was perturbed. He snipped, "Well, if you carried a cell phone like any normal business person I could have called you to let you know I'd be late. I've told you and told you that over and over again and again!"
Ellen was not put off. It was for safety reasons that she didn't carry a cell phone. She didn't want her mother calling her when she was on a case. There's nothing more awkward than spying on someone when your mother keeps calling you to ask why you didn't make your bed this morning. She looked again into his pimpled, zarf-like face. It was hard to keep looking at him full on, but she knew eye contact was keenly important when dealing with a man of his magnitude. She slowly intoned, "What kind of business do you have for me today, Mayor?"
His green, piggish eyes darted about, looking for someone to overhear. The ice cream store owner had gone to the back to mop up, and like I said before, the shop was deserted. He hastily extinguished his cigar on the table, "I thought I told you and told you not to call me that in public!" Ellen's brown eyes snapped with excitement, but she kept her demeanor calm. He was like butter in her hands...like a whole lot of butter.
He exhaled violently, his alliaceous breath filling the too small void between them. Ellen knew better than to back away...it was a sign of weakness. She swallowed hard, trying to keep her eyes from crossing. He began again, "I've called you here today because I need your help. Someone has been embezzling money from my non-profit organization and I can't find out who it is. And yesterday this was taped to my office door." He flung a piece of notebook paper forward for her inspection. She noted the ultra neat cursive writing and the small red smudge at the bottom left. The mayor continued, "Will you help me, Ellen? If I can't find out who is stealing from the organization quickly, the note says he'll go public with the photos from last year's Manwich competition. That would be disastrous...you know how I've gone on the record against meats with nitrates! If the people of Seattle see me eating that footlong, my career will be over!" He was waving his arms dramatically and the sweat was beginning to dribble down his bulging cheek.
"I'll help you...for my usual fee. I'll need this note and an access card to the Fit for Life building."
His plump face broke into a grateful smile and he thanked her again. The irony of the mayor's fitness organization struck Ellen anew as he pushed the overtaxed chair from the small circular table. She began to reload her fanny pack to make her exit. Unfortunately it took longer than she anticipated, so the drama was quenched. She finally finished, scooped up the remainder of her shake and began to walk out. At the door she paused, turned to the fat man, and repeated, "my usual fee." He nodded and she left, using her signature umbrella...light pink with lip prints all over. She was relieved. She had new business, she was away from that breath, and she could finally eat her Tums.
It was a dark and stormy morning. Ellen quickly closed her pink lip print umbrella and placed it in the rack in front of the school. She walked through the tiled hallway, her shoes squeaking with each step. So much for creeping through. As she passed each classroom, some junior high student or other looked up at her. She took the stairs up three full flights to the school storage area. She had discovered this nook during her high school years. She would occasionally sneak off to read Nancy Drew novels instead of attending Geometry class. Rounding the corner, she neared the banged up lockers. She ran her hand over each locker as she passed, just as she used to do in high school, listening to the ping as she passed from one door to the next. Aah, number 231, her last locker number. She spun out the combination and opened the door, reaching a hand up to the shelf. Ellen smiled; the mayor had brought her supplies and initial payment. She closed the locker door with a clang and squeaked her way back down the stairs. She tried to imagine the billious mayor hiking the three flights up here with the $100, Godiva bar, and Fit for Life admittance badge. Did he come himself or send some poorly paid government lackey to make the trek?
Ellen was leaving the junior high wing, nearing the front door when she glanced toward the school offices. Sensing the presence of someone, she paused and glanced toward the vice principal's office. There he was...just as she always remembered him from junior high days gone by. He was tall, with curly dark hair that spilled a little down his forehead despite efforts to tame it. Their eyes locked for a moment; her hand instinctively touched her fanny pack. She could feel the color coming to her face and she looked down in embarrasment. He spoke quickly to his secretary, then began walking toward her with purpose. She began her escape, squeaking out the heavy school doors. She immediately located and grabbed her umbrella...this was why it always paid to have a unique pattern. She fled, without opening it and the vice principal stood at the doors watching her run through the rain, fanny pack bouncing with each stride.
It was a dark and stormy morning. Despite the gloom and drizzle, there were people swarming Swank Street in Seattle. Ellen peered out from behind her crossword to take in the Fit for Life building entrance. It was now or never. She slipped on the rhinestone speckled spectacles and crossed the puddly street. She nonchalantly walked in the front door, flashing the ID badge the Mayor had given her at the disinterested security guard. Scuttling around the corner, she stopped to let her pulse return to normal.
In any other business, the hallway by the elevators would be packed at 9:30 a.m., but this was the Fit for Life Association...all it's employees were expected to neglect the elevators in favor of the stairwells. Everyone, of course, except for the Mayor. He was lucky enough to have an office on the ground floor, for reasons obvious to everyone who had ever seen him. Ellen pressed the upward arrow and waited, cautiously peering from side to side. She tenderly folded and inserted her crossword puzzle into her fanny pack, ingeniously concealed beneath her green frog rain jacket. Ellen was a master of disguise. The elevator door opened, and she stepped on, pressing floor nine. She fished the somewhat crumpled resume from under the rain jacket. The elevator door opened, dinging conspicuously. The jealous eyes of thirteen underemployees stared as she made her entrance...they were still glistening with sweat from the jog upstairs.
Ellen slowly stepped toward the reception area. The wet dog smell of the carpet confronted her immediately. At least she wouldn't have to worry about her rain jacket dripping on the floor. There was a hungry looking receptionist directly in front of her.
"Welcome to the Fit for Life Human Resources Department. What can I do for you today?" she mechanically said.
Ellen held out her resume. "Oh, yes, actually, um, I'm here for an interview for the opening in accounting."
The receptionist was obviously unimpressed. After a brief phone inquiry, she rose to show Ellen into the office of her contact.
"Follow me, please." she said. She was painfully thin. Ellen was surprised she had the strength to be so surly. After a neat rap on the office door, she was gone, and Ellen took another sip of her mochaccino.
"Come in!" came the shout from the office. Ellen entered, closed the door, and smiled at the man behind the desk. Frank was a stout man with a passion for tweed and peanuts. There was a halo of shells littered around his desk. His reckless snacking habits didn't matter, however, because Frank was exceptional at his job and everyone knew it. He smiled back at Ellen, then hugged her roughly around the shoulders. It was great luck to have an old friend of her father's already incorporated in the politics of the place.
"Sit down, Ellen, and have a peanut." He clanked a small nutty bucket near the chair before continuing. "I'm really glad you were able to come in today, but I've got some bad news for you."
"What's that, Frank?" Ellen sounded as confident as one can with three peanuts in her mouth.
"Well," he began with a sigh, "I wasn't able to find an opening in accounting without raising questions, but I did find you a job across the hall."
Hmmm..."What floor is it on?" Ellen queried, worried about what the upper teen levels would do to her heart rate.
"Oh, it's on the third floor...no problem there...The only reason I was concerned is because the position is in the Nutrition Center, as assistant editor."
Ellen smiled...editing she could do. "Why should that be a problem as long as it's next to Accounting? It should work out fine, Frank...". She reached for the file he handed over.
"You don't know what you're getting yourself into, Ellen. You can't so much as bite your fingernail without logging the calories onto your food journal. You're going to have to stop with the chocolate, and the lattes, and the hot dogs while you're working there. Do you think you can do it?".
The thought of carrot sticks and hummus flashed through her miserable brain. For a moment, she wavered. She rallied after a swig of mochaccino. She had a job to do, and no matter how much tofu it took, she would pass herself off as a nutritional guru to crack this case. Besides, she could eat whatever she wanted once she got home.
It was a dark and stormy afternoon. Ellen gazed out upon the dismal Seattle streets with longing. Oh, to be down there right now, happily splashing! Instead, she was trapped inside this awful office. She sighed. Sometimes private investigating was so lonely and boring and just plain hungry. Putting her hands on the glass, Ellen stood on tiptoe to try to see Frank's franks, her favorite hot dog stand. She jumped, she squinted, but couldn't see it. Oh, she could just smell that footlong loaded with sauerkraut and onions. Her stomach began to growl.
"Oh, Ellen, here you are," began Franz Wilhelm, her boss.
Ellen jolted back to reality, trying to forget about the steamy, drippy dog of her food fantasy. In fact, she felt a little guilty even thinking about it in the presence of Editor Wilhelm.
"Yes, sir. What can I do for you?"
"Ellen, I have a new assignment for you which requires you to do a little running around town. Do you mind leaving the office for me?" he asked.
Her eyes began to sparkle...so a rendezvous with Frank was a possibility after all!
"No, of course not. I'd like to help in any way at all. Just let me get my things." She all but skipped into her cubicle and retrieved her fanny pack. She returned to Editor Wilhelm with a smile. He smiled back, or rather smirked, then said, "Don't you need to put your tennis shoes on? You'll get pretty sore running in those heels."
A flash of panic shot through her brain. Had he literally meant that she had to run the streets of Seattle? His love of calorie burning showed through the merry smile of the hollow-cheeked fitness apostle. Her stomach growled again.
"Here are a list of the stops you need to make for me. I'd like you to pick up the response packets from the people mentioned and leave them with Carol whenever you finish. I know it's a bit of a trot over to Downey Street, so you may just have to bring them in tomorrow morning with you." Misery exuded from every cell in her being for a moment, then she rallied. She was a professional after all, and this was the very opportunity she had been waiting for...a chance to come back to the office after most people were gone. She needed to get to the computers in Accounting if she was ever going to find out who was embezzling from Fit for Life and trying to bribe the mayor.
She began her journey outside. The rain had subsided for the moment, so she dispensed with the pink lipstick umbrella. She looked both ways before ordering her dog from Frank, then shoved it into her fanny pack until she was out of the view of the building. She parked herself on a bench and attacked the hot dog like a crazed animal. She was actually a little out of breath from the rapid ingestion, when she decided to review the Mayor's note one more time. She drew it out of the fanny pack and gazed at the graceful, curving letters yet again, then at the small red smudge. She ran her finger over it, smelled it, and then had a Sherlock moment. The hot dog had done the trick...for now she finally knew that the bribery note was smudged with greasy ketchup. The same kind of ketchup that was on her finger right now!
So, Ellen thought, perhaps the sender of this note was also a part-time hot dog lover. She thought about this for a while. That would narrow the field of people from within Fit for Life by quite a bit. Most of them would rather die than eat processed meat. She stood up. It was time to begin her trip, but she was definitely not going to run. Walking would give her the time to digest not only her hot dog, but the new clue while she wasted the next few hours. The later she got back the better; tonight was the night she would break into accounting!
It was still a dark and stormy afternoon. Ellen had finished three of her six stops for the day and it was already 4:00. She peered at her list to find her next destination...764 Downey Street. That seems familiar. She rifled through the papers to find the name of the business. "Ah, here it is." she thought. It was her old school. Wonderful, she could check the locker for the Mayor's next Godiva payment. That'd be a great snack, especially considering how many calories she was burning this afternoon. She glanced at the papers again to find her contact. She stopped and gasped. It couldn't be...but was...Jonathan Miller, none other than the junior high vice principal who had watched her leave the school just a few short weeks ago.
That familiar gnaw came to her stomach when she thought about the possibility of speaking to him face to face. The truth was, she had always had a crush on him...even back when she was in junior high. He was the smart, funny guy with perfectly french-rolled jeans. All the girls were crazy for him, because he was nice, too. Ellen had admired him from afar, never daring to think that someone popular like him would take the time to notice her. Then came that fateful day. She had slammed her locker closed, expertly snapping her padlock into place. She had turned around and collided with him on her way to gym class. They were both fine, but her fanny pack had littered its contents all over the green tiled floor. They both bent over to retrieve her items, and she felt a strange tingle being so near him. She looked up and saw him smiling, and at her. Her heart had wings for a few brief moments. Her poor acne-loaded skin stretched into a smile, until she saw what he held in his hand. He had inadvertently grabbed the small picture she had tucked away to sigh over later. Her purple pen had etched 'Mrs. Ellen Miller' and 'Jonathan loves Ellen' all over the poor picture. By then, others had gathered and someone was broadcasting her humiliation throughout the halls of junior high. She had pushed through the crowd of jeerers with tears pricking at her eyes never to look him in the face again. And now, in a strange twist of fate, she would have to march right into his office and speak to him with the very same fanny pack which had been the cause of her disgrace.
She felt a little sick at the thought, then came up with a plan of action. The secretary. The secretary was all the protection she needed from a reignition of her shame. She'd go in covertly, wait for the right moment, then speak to the secretary while he was gone. She knew she could pull it off, for she had plotted similar schemes all through high school. She felt a little comforted at the prospect of her plan and continued walking. She finally arrived, and slipped into the junior high wing through the side door near the kitchen. She could smell the rancid grease as she passed the kitchen door. Just one more corner would bring her to a safe place where she could observe the vice principal's office without detection. She felt her way along the cool bricks of the wall, then quickly rounded the corner into the shadows. She had made it, but when she took a moment to grab her binoculars from the fanny pack, she felt that someone else was there. She slowly turned her head and looked straight into the stark brown eyes of Jonathan Miller. Her plan was ruined, and she needed an explanation, as well as a TUMS. Her mind was racing to come up with a plausible story when he took a small step forward.
"Ellen," he said. "I thought it was you." She looked at him again...he had that all too familiar smile on his face.
Ellen gulped loudly. Here he was, intimidatingly handsome and foiling her best laid plan. She shifted her weight and put her arm up nonchalantly against the brick wall.
"Why, Jonathan Miller," another gulp, "How in the world are you?"
He looked at her silently for a moment with his arms crossed. "I've been doing all right. How about you, Ellen? Here to see your brother?" he asked.
She nodded a weak affirmation.
"Let's talk in my office, Ellen, I've got something to discuss with you," he said suddenly, steering her through the traffic of the junior high boys. The sweaty scent of adolescence pervaded the air of the hallway. He breezed past the secretary without hesitation, closing the office door with a quiet click.
"Have a seat" he invited. She obeyed, shifting her fanny pack slightly to the front. He sat up straight behind his large, stark desk, then began again. "I've heard that you're working for Fit for Life these days. Do you think you can help me with a problem?"
She leaned forward in interest, embarrasment suddenly gone. He continued, " We've been having some discrepencies in our paperwork. As you probably know, the school has purchased some materials for our health classes, paid for by the state. I personally never see the money, but I do like to look over the expenditures and make sure that things are right. It seems that Fit for Life has been routinely getting more from the state than they should, yet our shipments of materials are still exactly what is ordered." He paused, noticing the sparkle of excitement in her eyes. Here was a clue she hadn't banked on! "I'd sure appreciate any help you could give in directing me to the right person or department. I want to get this figured out before we place our next order, if possible."
Ellen stood, "Absolutely. If you could just send any documentation to my email, it'd be a big help in tracking down the problem. I'd be happy to take care of it for you". She handed him a business card. It was deceptively plain...containing only her name and email, next to a small logo of binoculars. He glanced down at the card he now held in his hand. "Ellen Muriel Bartelle; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org", it read.
A quizzical look came over his face. "Is this your work email address?"
The question didn't intimidate her, for awkward as she could be, she really knew how to make an exit. She slipped on a pair of knock-off black rhinestone sunglasses, then said to him, "It's the address I use for my work, yes," she evaded. "Thank you, Jonathan, you've been helpful...very helpful. I'll get back to you as soon as I find something out for us...for you".
He mutely handed her the packet she had forgotten to request, looking keenly into her chocolate-brown eyes. She turned and slowly maneuvered out the office door, once again ignoring the secretary, shoes squeaking magnificently with every green-tiled stride.
It was a dark and stormy evening. The slight misting of the rain helped disguise Ellen's perspiration laden outfit. What kind of crazy company requires activewear for making business calls, she thought to herself.
It was 8:00 p.m...the perfect time for her break into the accounting department. Even the most zealous employees were gone by 6:30 p.m. at Fit for Life. They all had to squeeze in their evening work-out classes before heading home for a meager meal. Everyone except Frank and herself and the Mayor, that is. However, those parties didn't worry her, for they were already in on her secret work of espionage.
Ellen discreetly snuck around the building, using the long row of spruces to shield her from public view. She unlocked the side door, and entered silently. The hallway was deserted, just as she had anticipated. She jogged up the stairs with some effort, especially considering the many mile hike her boss had just sent her on today. Reaching the third floor, Ellen stifled a moan...her thighs were killing her! She progressed into the hallway, wincing with each painful step.
The lights were out everywhere...including Accounting. She rapidly unlocked the door, using the key she had pressured off Herman the night janitor two weeks ago. He had been wonderfully easy to convince, she remembered. She had smelled the hidden french fries from two doors away. It hadn't taken much to convince him that a copy of his key wasn't worth the trouble of losing his job for unauthorized carb consumption. Fit for Life was that type of happy organization.
She entered the Accounting department and chose a computer with a less conspicuous location. Using her stellar hacking skills, she dodged the login and password, adeptly depositing the accounts on her screen. It took her only seven minutes to track down the information she needed. She saved it all to her flash drive, which she safely deposited into her fanny pack. She shut down the computer and was out of accounting before twelve total minutes had elapsed. She was a professional. She crossed the hall and returned the packets to the secretary's desk before retreating again to the stairwell. The bulk of her operation being done, Ellen took a moment to breathe deeply and massage her aching leg muscles. She all but skipped down the stairs to the first floor and out the side door.
It was a quick trek home via taxi cab, because she was just that sore from her inordinate amount of exercise. Once home, she deftly avoided her mother and brother and escaped to her downstairs bedroom retreat. She was too tired to read and analyze financial data at the moment, so she treated herself to a long bubble bath before sneaking upstairs and making herself a plate full of leftover meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and macaroni and cheese. She had spotted the Tupperware bowl full of brussels sprouts, but carbo-loading temptation got the better of her. She knew the many health benefits of brussels sprouts, because she had just edited an incredibly dull article praising the vegetable for its fiber and vitamins. Perhaps that was what sealed the deal for the mac and cheese. Nothing turns your stomach against a green vegetable like dry prose.
Her caloric disregard lasted a feverish eight minutes, even including the licking of grease dribbles from her plate. Then she was ready for action. Over the next three hours, she painstakingly reviewed every spreadsheet on the flash drive. She checked the math and she followed the money trail until she found what she was looking for. She had her answer. She knew who was embezzling money from Fit for Life. But what should her course of action be? She threw herself onto her bed, trying to make her beleagured brain come up with an answer. But alas, the exercise of the afternoon followed by the evening's binge had all but made her brain shut down. Not even the small bowl of ice cream could spawn a clever idea. She decided to sleep on it. The long day ended with her snuggled up on her purple polka dot sheets, a chocolate ice cream smear on her top lip, damp fanny pack hanging to dry in the bathtub, and an as yet unread email from Jonathan Miller. The same man who was interrupting her dreams as she lay tossing and turning that night.
It was a dark and stormy mid-afternoon. Ellen was sipping her Starbucks caramel macchiato right across the street from Seattle's Best Coffee shop, and the irony of the dueling coffee joints struck her yet again. In younger years, she had made a joke of it by asking the Starbucks baristas where Seattle's best coffee was, to which they had to direct customers across the street. Starbucks had won her over today, however, because of the prominent building overhang which protected her from the latest passing drizzle.
She lifted her sunglasses to check for her contact...then lowered them again to maintain her anonymity. She thought through the data she had researched yet again. It wasn't a big surprise for her to discover that it was the Mayor himself that had been embezzling money from Fit for Life. She had suspected for some time that the company was merely a front for his wealthy campaign donations. What had confused her was how he was able to keep his fingerprints off the evidence so well. Now she knew, though, there had to be someone on the inside. Someone had to know how to maneuver the accounts so there weren't any red flags. Ellen fished through her fanny pack for some lip balm, so she would look a little more put together when her contact arrived. She should have fished for some breath mints, too.
The conspicuous clearing of a throat got her attention just as she was recapping the wintergreen Blistex. She looked directly into the eyes of Herman, the night janitor.
She put on her business tones, "Hello, Herman. I'm so glad you were able to come. I know your shift begins in a few hours and I'm glad you could make the time to help me out."
He shifted his weight, then demanded of her, "Are you going to sneak in the snacks to work tonight or what? Because I'm not helping you unless you bring the goods first. I have a lot of other things to do than work extra and spy on the Accounting room for you. I don't mind, though, if you can sneak in the snacks for me."
"Yes, yes, Herman, just give me your list and I'll find a way to make it happen. I just need to know that you can watch who goes in and who goes out all day. If anyone from outside Accounting goes in and uses the computer, I need to know. It's really important, okay? If they see me standing there, it'll be a dead give away."
Herman sat down in the wicker chair then nervously began popping his knuckles. "Okay, here is my price." He handed her his snack list.
Ellen glanced over the items in shock.
"One, two, three, four boxes of pizza rolls, bean burritos, nachos...drinks...Why in the world would you need all this food just for yourself?" she queried with animation.
A slight smile crept onto his face. "Well, you know, I'm not always by myself, I have some friends. Besides, tomorrow night is the beginning of football season, and Margarita was wanting to do some tailgating. She said she'd come into work with me as long as we could have snacks and watch the game, you know...".
She did know. Herman and Margarita were an odd pair, he was nineteen, she was fifty-seven. Ever since Herman's mother had passed, Margarita had stepped in to fill in the nag gap. She yelled at him for scuffing his shoes. She got angry at him for dropping out of college. She insisted that he present all girls for her approval before they were accepted for dating. They were close, and they couldn't stand each other. Sports had always been a common bond for them. They argued over their conflicting favorites on a regular basis.
Ellen sighed. It would be up to her to get the snacks past security, which was no small feat. The security guards would never spot a bomb or gun, but they had been trained to meticulously uphold the standards of nutritional health the bilious Mayor had set. She would have to wrap everything magnificently well to cover the scent of the heated food through the hallways of Nutrition...there was no way she could use the microwave there without detection. She could pull it off...she had to pull it off, because she needed the information Herman could provide. Once she knew who the accomplice was, all the pieces would be in place to complete her mission.
She said good-bye to Herman, and began to walk down the splashy sidewalk toward the grocery store. She pondered the complexity of the case, and wondered if she should raise her rate. She had a client who was an embezzler, she had an unknown accomplice, she had a bitterness-filled blackmailer, and she had a man from her past with serious questions about what was going on. Ellen smiled to herself as she passed into the small store and breezed past the produce section. It was a lot to handle, but she could do it, for after all, she was Seattle's premier private investigator...and she knew mysteries as well as she knew the fat content of a Hershey's bar.
It was a dark and stormy morning and the sprinkles were leaving a web of wetness in Herman's hair. Ellen spotted him on the park bench and weaved her way through the smiling families to sit discreetly next to him. She opened her Agatha Christie novel and appeared to begin a chapter while he looked over at her faintly. She said nothing until the other pedestrians passed.
"Did you get what I need, Herman?" She surmised that he had received her payment by the bloated look of his belly.
He weakly retrieved a folded sheet of paper and slipped it into her outstretched orange fingernails. "Oh, man Ellen. You wouldn't believe how sick I feel. I had so many containers of nachos during the third quarter last night. Then Margarita got mad because the Packers won and she left and I was alone there with the burritos and..."
Ellen cut him off, "Herman," she said, "did you dispose of the trash where I told you? We can't have the evidence of all those snacks back in the dumpster the secretaries use...you could really get into trouble."
"Yes, yes," he said while rubbing his stomach, "I put them in Mr. Frank's office like you said. I don't know why he can eat whatever he wants."
"I told you, Herman, he is a mastermind of planning...he's the reason Fit for Life is able to be so successful. He can do whatever he wants. Us on the other hand...anyone could do our jobs." She paused, expecting a reply, but Herman only let out a small, deep belch, then moaned.
She unfolded the paper and perused its information with surprise. The implied culprit was who she suspected, but she was stunned by the meticulous manner in which Herman of all people was able to record the data. He had entered an entry time, exit time, and activity for every person who had come near Accounting the previous day. He had made his entries in neat rows, placing asterisks next to the most suspicious of the names. He had done a great job...she'd have to remember him if she ever needed some help in the future.
Herman declined her offer of a Snickers bar, which she had meant as an extra thank you, and left abruptly after their business was concluded. Ellen smiled...she was in possession of all she needed to make her final show down. Too bad she had one more day at work first. She groaned at the thought of editing that dull article on artichokes. "Only one more day," she thought as she began the trek toward her work building, "I just have to survive working there for one more day."
She entered the building, this time passing security without the stress of contraband. She began walking up the stairwell and she didn't even get winded. She took a seat at her desk and bent over to change out of her tennis shoes. When she sat up again, she was startled by the disapproving presence of a perspiring Latina.
Ellen didn't even have a chance to say hello.
Margarita started in on her, "I don't like what you're doing, I don't like it at all. I said to Herman that you were not good for him. He didn't even ask me what I thought of you..."
Ellen was amused. Surely Margarita didn't think she was interested in the lazy teen! "Margarita, please...it's not what you think. Herman and I have a business proposition and that's all..."
"I know what girls like you are like. You give him food and you talk to him real quiet..."
This time Ellen interrupted her with more purpose. "Margarita. Stop it right now!" She had been attracting some unwanted attention. She motioned for Margarita to follow her to the ladies room where she was able to calm her nerves with the vague promise of never talking to Herman again. Then she threw the motherly bloodhound onto another scent.
"Really it's not me you should be worried about. Have you seen the way that lady security guard looks at him when he comes in every afternoon?" Ellen didn't mention that she was watching him because she'd busted him for chicken nuggets on more than one occasion. Margarita got a new glint to her eyes, then thanked Ellen profusely before leaving to scout out the new threat. Ellen breathed a sigh of relief. That was a little too conspicuous for comfort.
She returned to her cubicle and read through several dull manuscripts before breaking for her unappetizing lunch of leek soup. While she quietly slurped, she dreamed of the fattening burgers she would be free to have soon...so soon. She was mid-daydream when Editor Wilhelm marched in to give his afternoon motivational speech. Carla, his secretary always sat up a little straighter after he uttered, "Let's go, team!".
She hydrated, then plunged in again, working steadily through the afternoon until the happy moment of her release. She skipped out the door, down the stairs, into the streets, then hopped onto the bus toward home. The comforting smell of fried chicken greeted her as she came in the door.
Her Mom smiled at her. "Hi." She was a woman of few words.
Ellen smiled back and leaned over the deep fryer in delight. It would be a great night. After a hearty dinner, she'd go down to her room and send out the necessary emails for her meeting tomorrow night. She'd thought and planned, and finally the time had come. It was the beginning of the end for the case of Fit for Life.
It was a dark and stormy night. The glowering clouds traveled quickly, giving momentary peeks at the half moon above. Ellen was at her post across from Fit for Life, observing as her guests arrived for the final showdown. She intended to make a great entrance once her guests had all arrived.
She had emailed invitations to all, under the guise of a party honoring the new calorie counting software being launched next month. The Mayor had arrived moments before Herman and Margarita, who were bickering as usual. Next, Frank came, underdressed as usual, leaving behind him a trail of peanut shells. She held her breath as Jonathan Miller parked and entered the building, speaking briefly to the security guard with a smile. Editor Wilhelm and his secretary Carla slithered by silently...Ellen smiled to herself...soon she would never have to darken the door of Fit for Life for the rest of her life! The clouds had passed and the cool night air blew through the damp trees, causing sprinkles anew to fall around her on the bench.
It was time to make her entrance. She walked up to the Fit for Life building, her red velvet heels clicked and caused mini-splashes as she crossed the street. She flashed her credentials and a smile to security and headed to the elevators for her final ascent into the office. She felt a little odd without the fanny pack...instinctively trying to rest her hand only to find nothing. She ran her fingers through her damp hair, then bit her fingernails nervously. She was always so worked up for these meetings...public speaking was not her forte.
The elevator dinged conspicuously, reminding her of her first visit to the floor. She exited the elevator, pausing dramatically in the hallway only to discover that no one was there. She clicked across the black tile and entered the office. She posed near the doorway until all eyes had turned toward her...the guests were all helping themselves to the diet sodas and bottled waters she had thought to provide earlier.
"Hello, friends," she toned deeply. "Thank you all for responding to my message." No one responded; some of the guests looked very confused. The room took on an air of discomfort. Carla quietly began to sneer, while Herman searched for a regular Pepsi.
Having made her brief entrance speech, Ellen was unsure how to bridge the gap for her big reveal. She could feel the red of embarrassment beginning to creep up her neck as the others continued to stare mercilessly. Frank sauntered over and offered her a beverage quietly, steering her toward the refreshment table. Ellen would have none of it...she had a mission to conclude.
She gestured grandly, announcing the fact that she had an announcement to make. "If you would, please be seated while I make introductions." Everyone chose a desk chair and waited...everyone, that was, but the Mayor, who obviously would never fit into a Fit for Life desk. He stood nervously by Editor Wilhelm, shifting his weight back and forth. Then she began...
"It was four short weeks ago that I began my work here in the Fit for Life editing department. I've gotten to know many of you during that time, but I have a confession to make to you all...I am not just an editor's assistant by trade...(she paused here)...I'm a detective." She locked eyes with Jonathan's bewildered eyes, only to have the moment spoiled by Herman loudly spouting to Margarita, "There! Did I tell you there was something else going on? I don't know why you can't trust me about these things..." Margarita interrupted him with a detailed assault of exactly why she couldn't trust him. The bickered quietly from their desks in the corner.
The Mayor decided the moment had come to take credit for everything Ellen had accomplished. He tottered to the front of the office, congratulated Ellen on a job well done and began making a speech about in-house ethics and how important he always considered it. Ellen had been upstaged before the reveal, and she was unsure of how to get things back on track. Just then, fate took a hand.
A cell phone began ringing. It rang unanswered for many minutes, it's jazz trumpets blaring the same eight bars repeatedly. People began ignoring the political hogwash in search for the unanswered phone...who wasn't here to answer their phone? Or was someone there who wouldn't answer their phone in the present company?
Ellen took the Mayor's momentary lapse to jump back into the spotlight and announce grandly, "I know who that phone is ringing for!" People were checking their watches and trying to make a discreet exit...it was obvious they didn't care where or why the phone was ringing. Feeling the excitement waning, Ellen walked boldly over to Carla the secretary. She met her smoldering gaze fiercely, and with fists clenched (a very conspicuously odd movement) she invited her to answer the phone. Carla's eyes gleamed with acknowledgement, but she only snickered aloud and claimed no knowledge of the phone. Ellen walked over to Carla's desk and from the second side drawer pulled out a pink cell. "You do know of this phone because it has been your source of communication with the outside man who is blackmailing the embezzler of Fit for Life."
That statement finally made a bit of an impact. The Mayor waddled over, his piggish eyes green with excitement, Carla began shoveling insults out about Ellen's BMI, Jonathan was carefully listening, clearly intrigued, and Herman and Margarita were of course still arguing in the corner. Frank looked on keenly.
Ellen quieted the mini-mob with the promise of an explanation. They quieted nervously and listened as she began. "I was approached prior to my introduction to Fit for Life by the Mayor, who was obviously concerned about the embezzling of funds from this...(her voice caught a little as she thought up a complimentary, yet honest adjective for the hated job)...substantial...company." Ellen glanced over to the agitated and perspiring politician. "It was a bold move to hire someone to uncover the source of the embezzlement from without the company. His reasoning was obvious...the mayor himself is the embezzler." Ellen had anticipated a gasp of astonishment, but apparently this news didn't surprise many. Even the Mayor was tonguetied in his own defense. He pointed his finger at her, trying to summon up a speech, but was perfectly speechless. She cocked her eyebrow, then continued, "The Mayor isn't the only breach in ethics here. He embezzled thousands of dollars from this company to fund his reelection campaign under the watchful eyes of Carla and her well-seasoned blackmailing companion in crime. The red mark on the blackmail letter was a dead giveaway...it could be no one else but Frank." This time there was a gasp. Frank, her lifetime friend stared in shock at Ellen.
He began, "Ellen, how dare you accuse me..." Ellen realized her improvident blunder.
"No, no, Frank, of course I don't mean you...I mean Frank from the street. You know, Frank's franks? His real name isn't even Frank! It's Troy...who buys hot dogs from a guy named Troy? I couldn't believe it at first, either, but there's no mistaking that horseradish ketchup he makes. Who else would be able to see the secret happenings of Fit for Life? Who else would have known which waif to approach with the idea of blackmail? It had to be someone close. Some one the Mayor would never suspect. Someone who had been able to photograph the Mayor eating all those nitrates. It was him." Ellen finished with a smile, then casually ignored her growling stomach while she calmly dialed security and the police.
Frank and Editor Wilhelm were strong in their praise of Ellen's blame-pinning palate. The Mayor was arrested, as Ellen had already forwarded all Fit for Life financial data to the district attorney. The police would be out late into the night looking for Frank, er, Troy, who would be hastily thrown under the bus by the now unemployed Carla.
Out of habit, Herman began cleaning up and turning off the lights. There was only one light left on in the office, as most people had already left to spread the gossip around Seattle. Ellen looked at Jonathan, seeking his approval and understanding. He came near her and offered his congratulations...then he invited her out to dinner with him and his girlfriend. Her heart sank...seriously?! Ellen smiled slightly and thanked him, evading the invitation for now. She stepped forward and shook his hand, standing eye to eye as equals. She would never feel inferior to him again, for she had proved her worth to him and all Seattle. She was alone, but she was a force to be reckoned with. She was Ellen Bartelle, woman of mystery.
She put on her red ladybug sunglasses, turned on her velvet heel and walked away slowly. She left the building, grabbing the lipstick umbrella on her way out into the damp streets of Seattle. The storm had calmed, just as had the mystery of her life...until tomorrow.